Descendants of Captain Arthur Fenner

Gov. Arthur Fenner. Sketch by Allan Yalladny, 1936.

Gov. Arthur Fenner.
Sketch by Allan Yalladny, 1936.

Governor Arthur Fenner


Early Life

Arthur was born 10 December 1745 in Providence, RI, the eleventh of twelve children, son of Arthur Fenner (1699-1788) and Mary Olney. His first child, Arthur, was an illegitimate child with Freelove Westcott. He married Amey Comstock [b ca. 1749; d 5 Sept. 1828 in her 80th yr.], daughter of Gideon Comstock of Smithfield. Arthur and Amey were members of the First Baptist Church in America, at Providence. Arthur’s father owned Fenner's Wharf, where the Gaspee Incident (June 9-10, 1772) was staged, located near what is now 155 South Main Street in Providence. Arthur was sought after as a person of interest following the incident. 

Political Career

For many years before becoming governor, Arthur served as the clerk of the Court of Common Pleas. He served as governor of Rhode Island from 1790 to 1805 and died in office. Arthur was governor when Rhode Island became the last of the thirteen colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution on 29 May 1790. The following quote is from the Dictionary of American Biography:

Proclamation requiring government officials to swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, 14 June 1790.

In March of 1790, the contest between Federalists and AntiFederalists in Rhode Island reached its height, [and] the long-delayed convention to decide upon the adoption of the Constitution [had] been called, [with] Governor Collins having become unpopular in consequence. [With the elections approaching,] Deputy Governor Owens was offered the governorship by the Anti-Federalists, but declined to serve. "A movement," says Arnold, "was made in Providence to form a coalition party. The Newport committee united with them in proposing [to put on the ballot] Arthur Fenner, an Anti-Federalist." . . . . The Anti-Federalists triumphed, and on May 5, 1790, the general assembly declared Fenner governor and Samuel J. Potter deputy governor. Opposition to entering the Union was so strong, . . . [that a vote to adopt the Constitution] was delayed until the last week in May, and when on the 29th, a decision was reached, the vote stood thirty-four to thirty-two in favor of adopting the Constitution. Governor Fenner was very popular, and was continued in office, serving at the time of his death.

On 4 June 1790, George Washington wrote personally to Gov. Fenner to thank him and the state of Rhode Island for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He encouraged the citizens of Rhode Island to continue a spirit of unity:

Since the bond of Union is now complete, and we once more consider ourselves as one family, it is much to be hoped that reproaches will cease and prejudices be done away; for we should all remember that we are members of that community upon whose general success depends our particular and individual welfare; and, therefore, if we mean to support the Liberty and Independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish, we must drive far away the dæmon of party spirit and local reproach.

Proclamation for the observance of Thanksgiving, 1792. (

Gov. Fenner issued annual proclamations in observance of Thanksgiving as an official holiday (PDF), a tradition established by his predecessors, dating back to at least 1759. Also while in office, the Providence Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery was chartered, and an act establishing the method of electing Rhode Island's U.S. representatives and senators was passed.

His tenure wasn't without controversy. In 1802, he was accused of a fraudulent business deal involving a ship, Mesmer, sold to a Madame Le Gras in Hispaniola nearly 20 years previously, which was then taken from her and sailed back to Providence. His son Arthur Jr. was captain of the ship and was involved in the deal. A complaint was published and distributed publicly in April of 1802 (PDF). 

His son James gave up his position as a U.S. senator to be elected governor of Rhode Island, two years after Arthur’s death on 15 Oct. 1805. James served three terms, from 1807 to 1811, 1824 to 1831, and 1843 to 1845.

Child out of wedlock by Freelove Westcott, daughter of Thomas Westcott:
1. Arthur Fenner Jr. [b 9 Nov. 1766; d 27 Sept. 1837] m Lydia Sabin.

Children by Amey Comstock:
2. James Fenner [b 22 Jan. 1771; d 17 Apr. 1846] U.S. Senator, Governor of RI, m Sarah Jenckes.
3. Joseph Fenner [b ca. 1773; d 18 July 1797 in Providence, age 24].
4. Sally Fenner [b 1778; d 21 Aug. 1794 at Newport, age 16].

Governor Arthur Fenner: Thanksgiving Proclamations

1792 | 1793 | 1794 | 1795 A | 1795 B1796 | 1797 | 1798 | 1799 | 1800

Arthur | Thomas | Arthur | Arthur

a. Gov. Arthur and the Gaspee Incident (
b. Gov. Arthur and Amey are listed in the register of the First Baptist Church in America. The card indicates he was born on 10 Dec. 1745 and died on 15 Oct. 1805.
c. Eva Fenner, Notes, 93. In a letter from the RI Historical Society, Arthur’s children are given as Gov. James, Arthur who m Lydia Sabin, Sally, and Joseph. Signed by Clarkson A. Collins III, 29 Oct. 1956.
d. Eva Fenner, Notes, 93. In another letter, dated 14 Jan. 1957, Mr. Collins indicates that Arthur who m Lydia Sabin was an illegitamate child. Mr. Collins also gives Gov. Arthur’s birthdate as 12 Oct. 1732.
e. Martha Benns, Notes on the Fenner Family of R.I. (1941), pp. 24, 43. Martha shows the marriage of Arthur and Lydia Sabin as 2 Dec. 1787. Joseph's death is 14 July 1797. A note in her manuscript reads, "A genealogical chart of the Westcott family in the Foster papers, compiled by Theodore Foster, Gov. Arthur Fenner's brother-in-law, states that his son Arthur was an illegitimate child of Gov. Arthur and Freelove Westcott. C.A.C. 3rd"
f. Gov. Arthur Fenner's gravestone at FindAGrave, no. 22487511
g. Biography by J. Earl Clauson in the Providence Journal (1936) | PDF
h. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2, Letterbook 23, p. 27 (Image 49); Letter from George Washington to Gov. Arthur Fenner, 20 Nov. 1790. 
i. Further elucidation of the conduct of Governor Fenner (Providence, 1802). Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection; Portfolio 168, Folder 2 ( | PDF
j. Letter from George Washington to Gov. Arthur Fenner, 4 June 1790, transcribed in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2, Letterbook 22, p. 304 (Image 323).
k. Thanksgiving proclamations by Gov. Arthur Fenner, issued annually from1792 to 1800 (